By Ajaz Ashraf
There are as many versions of an event as there is the number of witnesses, a profound truth Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa tellingly conveyed in Rashomon. Thus, people writing their memoirs are prone to concealing embarrassing episodes of their lives to cultivate the image they have of themselves. It is a frailty Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, too suffers from on at least three significant counts.
For one, it is implausible Rushdie did not, as he claims, know or guess the reason his parents chose Pakistan over India late in their lives. Two, he has glossed over the controversial role his family members played in Pakistan’s early years. A sister of Rushdie’s mother, Negin, was married to a general who established the ISI, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency. Negin’s another sister was the wife of a colonel who mercilessly sanitised the official biography of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Third, Rushdie remains silent on the issue that the probation of his father, Anis, in the prestigious Indian Civil Service (ICS) was terminated because his birth record was found forged.
But first, a brief background to this discovery of mine. A fortnight ago, I had written in these pages about the erroneous connection Rushdie makes between a person’s religiosity and his or her choice to opt for Pakistan. Rushdie sounds bewildered in Joseph Anton why his father Anis and mother Negin chose Pakistan after living a life of “happy irreligion”. Not only does he find their decision inexplicable, he also thinks, “something was fishy here.” I argued that Rushdie has misread his history, that it was men such as Anis, modern and secular, who endorsed the idea of Pakistan, which most of the prominent ulema, or religious scholars, bitterly opposed then.
In response, I received a mail from an expatriate Pakistani (call him Mr Anonymous). Claiming that his parents were close to the Rushdies, he scoffed at my theorising and added, “Theirs was neither a political nor religious decision.” He said the Rushdies moved to Pakistan because Negin’s two sisters and a brother were already living there, furnishing their names as well as those of their spouses. I called a few Pakistani friends, among them journalists Mariana Baabar, Rehana Hakim and Asif Noorani, who helped me doublecheck facts from different sources. Here is the story of Rushdie’s extended family I have pieced together.
At the time of Partition, Negin’s sister Amina was married to Col Majeed Malik, who, says Noorani, was the first accredited correspondent of Reuters in India before he joined the British Army. Post-Partition, he worked as Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s aide and became the country’s first Principal Information Officer, playing a dubious role in that position. In his book, Stop Press: A Life in Journalism (translated by Khalid Hasan), Inam Aziz blamed Colonel Malik for issuing Pakistan’s “first press advice”. Soon after Jinnah made his famous speech of August 11, 1947, Colonel Malik reportedly asked the Dawn newspaper’s FE Brown to omit the portion in which a promise was made to recognise the right of non-Muslims to practise their religion.
The irony of Rushdie’s uncle playing Mr Censor doesn’t end there. Colonel Malik expunged large sections of Hector Bolitho’s official biography of Jinnah (Jinnah: Creator of Pakistan). The contract between the Pakistan government and Bolitho made it mandatory for him to submit his manuscript to a specially designated official for approval. The official was none other than Colonel Malik. The portions he deleted can now be read in Sharif Al Mujahid’s In Quest of Jinnah.
Rushdie’s another aunt, Tahira, was married to Shahid Hamid. In a March 1993 obituary of Shahid Hamid, journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote, “In 1940 he (Hamid) met and married Tahira Butt, then one of the most renowned beauties in India, after a whirlwind romance that was the talk of Delhi.” Lieutant-Colonel Hamid opted for Pakistan and later established the ISI, in the process becoming its first director-general. He played an instrumental role in the coup Field Marshal Ayub Khan staged to become Pakistan’s military dictator, subsequently rising to the post of Major General at his retirement in 1964, and 14 years later, he was inducted into the cabinet of President Ziaul Haq, whom he served for three years.
Yet Rushdie doesn’t mention the role his uncles played in the making of an authoritarian Pakistan, not even when he excoriates the mighty generals and their evil ways. Perhaps references to them could have denied Rushdie the opportunity to provide a touch of mystery to his parents’ move to Pakistan. It could also have made their migration appear a tad opportunistic — it may have conveyed the notion that they shifted to Pakistan to benefit from relatives who were in positions of power there. He could not then have created the myth that his parents were cosmopolitan and devoid of Muslim consciousness, forgetting that a person could simultaneously possess the two seemingly contradictory sensibilities.
It is also possible Rushdie is deeply embarrassed of his aunts’ husbands, wishing to disown them in the same manner city-slickers do away with their country cousins. You suspect this as he, on page 603, is effusive about his actor-aunt Uzra Butt, a Pakistani citizen, and her famous sister, Zohra Segal, an Indian. Uzra was married to Hamid Butt, Negin’s brother, and the couple shifted to Pakistan around the time the Rushdies did. Until then, Hamid had been a scriptwriter in Bollywood and famously teamed up with Chetan Anand to write the screenplay of Aandhiyan (1952), apart from undertaking several solo ventures. Rushdie describes Uzra, Zohra and her daughter Kiran as the “zany wing of the family, sharp of tongue and mischievous of tongue”, subconsciously revealing his attitude about the other non-zany members holding positions in the Pakistan army.
Rushdie also skirts around the story the London-based journalist Danish Khan did for Mumbai Mirror, in which he quoted from documents obtained from the National Archives of the British government to prove that Anis Rushdie, then a probationer, was dismissed from the ICS for presenting forged documents pertaining to his date of birth. Danish graciously shared the documents with me. Though deserving a separate story of this length, suffice it to say that Anis presented municipal documents that made him eligible to write the civil service examination in 1933. Handwriting and ink analyses proved that the document had been tampered with, and that his real date of birth was Oct 31, 1909, and not Oct 3, 1910, as Anis had claimed.
Danish’s story prompted London’s Evening Standard to do an item on it, for which Rushdie was asked for a response. Rushdie said he was aware that his father was rejected by the ICS, but added, “As a family, we have never before heard this allegation of a ‘real’ birth date in 1909.” Perhaps Rushdie and his three sisters had not, but Mr Anonymous remembers the elders in their social circle talk of Anis losing his ICS “job” because of a conflict over his high school certificate. Rushdie, in pique, further added, “My father died 24 years ago, and was not a public person; the fact that his son is in the public eye is no reason to exhume such ancient matters.” Mr. Rushdie, one can say the same thing about personalities you have lampooned in your novels.
(Courtesy Daily Times where this article appeared on Nov 2)